It was near the end of January when Nitkowski, who signed with the SK Wyverns prior to the 2009 season, received a call from his new team. SK wanted to know if he could go to its spring training facility for the start of training for the new year. The idea of spring training so early in the year shocked Nitkowski, but this was just the first layer of the onion in the difference in Korean baseball culture.
When Nitkowski got to spring training, it didn’t take long for other differences to reveal themselves as he watched a pitcher throw a 300-pitch bullpen session.
“I’m in Japan, I see a guy throw 200 pitches and I think that’s nuts and then I go over to Korea and I see a guy throw 300 pitches. Every (major league) baseball player will tell you they can’t fathom throwing that many pitches,” Nitkowski said. “Here, a big bullpen session is 80 (pitches), and that’s really pushing. Most guys will throw 50, 60, maybe 70. Then you hear about a guy throwing 300 pitches and it’s pretty nuts.”
Spring training in the United States is generally regarded as a time for players to ease back into their routines and get repetitions in before the start of the season. Some players compete for the last couple of spots in the bullpen while the established veterans work into their routines in the batting cages in the bullpen. Nitkowski’s first spring training in Korea could not have gone any more differently.
“My very first start and my last start in spring training had gone really well,” Nitkowski said. “I threw five shutout innings against the Doosan Bears and, yet, I still had a meeting with my manager with him telling me how disappointed he was in my spring training and how … I had to pick up the pace a little bit.”
The first official pitch of the season had not even been thrown, yet the pressure was already on for Nitkowski to perform.
“Right before my first start, my translator says to me, ‘Don’t forget what the manager said. You’ve really got to pitch perfect today,’ which was insane!” Nitkowski said. “The same thing happened in Japan where my translator and a coach would tell me to go out and be perfect, which is so opposite of what you’d tell a pitcher right before a start. It’s tough enough as it is (to pitch), but to have someone right in your ear telling you that you might get released if you don’t pitch perfectly, and the season hadn’t even started yet.”
A (Brief) History of Baseball in Korea
Korea (38,691 square miles) is an incredibly small, but dense country: the current population of the country is at 50.22 million. New England, which is not quite twice as large as Korea (in terms of land mass), has a population of 14.62 million (a difference of 35.62 million).
According to legend, Koreans were introduced to the game of baseball by Philip L. Gillett, who formed the first baseball team in the country at the YMCA in 1905. When the Japanese took over Korea, the game continued to spread for nearly four decades until the Japanese defeat in World War II.
The Korean Baseball Organization launched in 1982 with six teams, the OB Bears, MBC Chungyong, Lotte Giants, Haitai Tigers, Samsung Lions and Sammi Superstars, forming the first professional baseball league in Korea. As in Japan, the first name of teams are sponsors, rather than the cities they represent.
While the sport steadily increased in popularity throughout the ’80s, the boom in interest didn’t occur until Chan Ho Park made his debut for the Los Angeles Dodgers. Park, to this day, is revered in Korea as a national hero. Park’s success in the majors paved the way for other players such as Hee Seop Choi, Shin-Soo Choo, Byung-Hyun Kim and, most recently, Hyun-Jin Ryu and Jung-Ho Kang.
Attendance continues to increase across the KBO and, as a result, salaries have continued to increase. Prior to the 2013 season, the highest paid player in the KBO, Kim Tae-Kyun of the Eagles, made $1.5 billion won, or about $1.36 million.
Given the country’s success in international competition (The Olympics, the World Baseball Classic and the Asian Games), the sport has become the most popular in the country, overtaking soccer. The KBO will introduce a new franchise, the KT Wiz, in 2015, displaying the continued growth in interest in the sport. The Wiz will be the fifth expansion team for the KBO since the league’s inception, joining the Hanwha Eagles, NC Dinos, Nexen Heroes and SK Wyverns.
The extreme pitching regimens of Asian pitchers are well documented. Just a couple of years ago, 16-year-old Tomohiro Anraku threw 772 pitches over the course of five games in a nine-day span in the country’s most prominent baseball tournament, Koshien. The philosophy of throwing a lot of pitches is widespread among Asian baseball culture. The idea is similar to philosophy that “practice makes perfect” — throwing more pitches will allow a pitcher to perfect mechanics and, in the long run, relieve stress on their arm later. But the differences in culture stretch beyond pitch counts, both on and off the field.
Han-Gil Lee is the CEO of Global Sporting Integration, a company he founded during his second year of law school at Temple University to help assist professional athletes from abroad transition when they leave their home country to play in the United States and vice versa. Kevin Youkilis worked with GSI to help him make the transition to Japan when he signed with the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles of Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball.
The biggest cultural barrier between Korean and American culture is the concept of respect. The Korean language features a different set of grammar rules for the sole purpose of respecting elders. This set of rules builds on the immense respect paid to elders in Korean culture.
Lee spoke of having to explain that — how to bow, for example. “It took time for guys,” he said. “When we first explained it to them on day one, they didn’t quite get it. The Korean players, who come to the States, they’re used to greeting their coaches and managers or their teammates in a certain way…. The U.S. is a very independent culture whereas Korea is very team oriented. You come to the U.S. and you’re expected to do things independently.”
The idea of seniority particularly makes itself evident when players eat meals.
“When the older guys come (into the clubhouse), the younger guys shout, ‘Hello’ to the whole locker room. Those are things that these (American) players are not used to,” Lee said. “When you sit down for a meal, they all say, ‘Eat well,’ or ‘Eat a lot.’ They’ll yell out these things into the air because when you’re in a big group of people, you’re not addressing it to a particular person. We had to demo that for a lot of the guys during the seminar. If you enter the locker room and guys start yelling, all they’re saying is ‘Hello. How’re you doing?’ These guys then understand that this is the norm. They’re accepting that’s how Korean culture is.”
Respect spreads to the showers as well.
“In Korea, in the showers, I’ve heard it’s not considered weird to scrub down each other’s backs,” Lee said. “In the U.S., if you were to do that, it’s incredibly weird. It’s funny. Chan-Ho Park talked about that where in the first couple years of his minor league career, he tried to do that to his American teammates and his American teammates thought that he was gay. In Korea, your scrubbing each other’s backs is raising the camaraderie, like, ‘Hey, good day of practice, let me scrub down your back,’ whereas in the U.S., that’s completely off limits.”
Ryan Sadowski, who pitched briefly for the San Francisco Giants, went to Korea to join the Lotte Giants in 2010. He was recruited by Jerry Royster — the manager of the Lotte Giants and the first non-Korean to ever manage a South Korean team — through his pitching coach with the Giants, Dave Righetti. Sadowski, who now works for Lotte as an international scout, noticed the clubhouse mingling between teams.
“You’ll occasionally have a player from another team stroll in about 45 minutes to an hour before the game because he used to go to high school with one of the (opposing) players,” Sadowski said. “These guys are a lot more intermixed in terms of community and where they grew up. If they used to play for Lotte or play for the same high school, they might stroll into a clubhouse and share some scouting reports or share some information. They’re not doing it to cheat, but rather, as a form of respect.”
This culture even stretches to the umpires.
“An umpire will come in and ask for a guy to sign baseballs and you understand that by the players signing the baseball, the umpire is not going to give him a call,” Sadowski said. “At first, that can come off as really unusual.”
Putting a blanket statement on the level of talent in the KBO is an unwinnable situation. Both Nitkowski and Sadowski said that while there are guys there who could not crack a Double-A roster in the U.S., there are players, such as Ryu, who clearly have the talent to be difference makers in the majors.
“I don’t know that there’s a Triple-A team that could roll in and necessarily beat the Doosan Bears,” Nitkowski said. “Even to say that it’s Triple-A, I don’t think that’s necessarily fair. Maybe the rosters don’t run as deep. Maybe they don’t have Triple-A players one through nine, but one through six, one through seven, a lot of teams are really good. I really hesitate to put a number on it or a level on it.”
Sadowski echoes this view, citing Americans who go to Korea as they come down from the peak of their career with no major league teams willing to keep them. “It’s really hard to compare because those guys had major league tools at some point,” he said. “When teams get hurt and their replacements come in, they’re not being replaced by a Triple-A player or a guy who could play in the big leagues. They’re getting replaced by a younger guy who has only been playing two years of professional baseball or may be short on tools.”
Hyun-Jin Ryu’s success with the Los Angeles Dodgers is the latest evidence of the potentially untapped talent in the KBO. Lee said a multitude of factors played into Ryu’s success in Los Angeles.
“He had the tools to become a major league starter,” Lee said, but there was more. “He had good resources around him. He happened to go to Los Angeles. That, obviously, helps.” The Dodgers have a business development and Korean relations manager, Martin Kim, and he “played a huge role in helping him adjust to life in the U.S., and I know he was still a big part in year two.”
Los Angeles is well known for its Koreatown neighborhood, which features a lot of Korean restaurants, a factor that undoubtedly helped Ryu’s transition to the United States. Food plays a major role in how a transition goes for a player leaving his home country.
“It’s just about going out and being educated on (food),” Sadowski said. “I was fortunate enough to meet some Koreans that spoke English and be exposed to some Korean foods and I was willing to try them. I found Korean foods that I liked, Korean foods that I didn’t like and from there, I was able to eat a really balanced Korean diet without having to eat McDonalds and pizza and a lot of the pitfalls that a lot of the foreigners fall into by going overseas.”
Lee said some major league teams make a mistake in handling their Asian prospects, throwing them into the same English classroom with Latin prospects with a Latin-American instructor. As a result, these classes are often taught in Spanish and English, leaving non-Spanish speaking players trying to learn English in a foreign environment.
“If a new Latin prospect signs, all throughout the minor league system and roster, you’re going to find someone who speaks Spanish, meaning they’re going to help this player — helping him figure out where the good restaurants are or helping him out during practice,” Lee said. “They can speak Spanish amongst one another so there is an initial comfort that is created. With the Asian players, it’s very uncommon for two Asian players to be on the same team. These players are used to doing everything team oriented and then they come to the U.S. and practices last for a couple of hours and (then) you’re supposed to do individual drills and workouts and supposed to go lift on your own.”
The struggle in assimilating to American culture persists for many foreign players. Lee worked with Kyeong Kang, who moved to the U.S. from Korea when he was 14 years old. He became the first South Korean-born player selected in the MLB Draft, picked in the 15th round by the Tampa Bay Rays. Despite having lived in the U.S., Kang still struggles.
“You’d think English would not be a big issue, but even guys like (Kang) had struggles marinating and fully comprehending the hitting coach’s instruction to him,” Lee said. “You can see how that could become challenging for a guy like a Kang Jung-Ho. Let’s say a hitting coach tells him certain things and it’s totally up to the translator to properly translate in a way that the player can properly understand it, and that doesn’t always happen.”
The Continued Growth of Korean Baseball
The environment at a Korean baseball game is unlike anything you’ll experience in the majors. The crowds, are significantly smaller than those in the U.S., but much rowdier and louder. When I went to a game at Jamsil Baseball Stadium, cheerleaders danced on stages in various places of the park as fans sang along to a certain player’s specific cheering song. Fans, equipped with noisemakers, made noise from the first to last pitch.
While the continued growth in attendance and the expansion of the KBO provide ample evidence to the growth of Korean baseball, the improvement in foreign talent over the last decade is another important factor.
“Guys are getting younger and younger going over there, which proves to me that the level of play is increasing. It’s no longer where the washed-out big leaguers in their mid-’30s go for their last paycheck,” Lee said. “The KBO is becoming a league where there is a lot more depth. There are guys that are starting to get more international recognition. The salaries are becoming more competitive.”
Dan Kurtz runs MyKBO.net, a website that closely follows the ins and outs of Korean baseball. He lives in Korea and has seen the rise in popularity of the sport from a fan’s perspective.
“Ever since the 2006 WBC and the 2008 Olympics, interest in baseball has peaked and you are able to see it both inside and outside the stadium.” Kurtz said. “Attendance has steadily increased since those tournaments and the KBO has continued to break attendance records each season it seems.” Four (soon to be five) cable channels carry the games each night, and each channel has an in-studio postgame highlight show.
Sadowski has seen the sport become more and more professionalized.
“It’s starting to look like something now that’s more than just guys going out and playing baseball. It’s a show. You know that the major leagues and the States refer to it as ‘The Show’ and now you’re starting to see that in Korea,” Sadowski said. “With that, you’re going to see the fan base attracting more and more professionals.
“A lot of the fan base is students or 20-somethings,” he said. “That’s really where baseball is going to grow in Korea the most, by getting kids into it.”
From its success on the international level to the success of Ryu, Korean baseball is becoming more recognized as a potential talent hotbed. Prior to the 2014 season, the Red Sox and the Nexen Heroes (Kang’s team in the KBO) agreed to a strategic partnership. As part of the deal, the Red Sox share farm system and player development strategies while the Heroes provide scouting information on KBO teams.
It’s hard not to identify Korea as an emerging baseball market to keep an eye on.